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Posts Tagged ‘sex’

Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.

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The Marriage Contract

Recent reports by the Gallup organization (here, here, here) have stressed that Americans’ views on personal morality issues have moved “left,” by which, I assume, they mean toward permissiveness. (Since libertarians would be the most permissive of all and are usually put on the “right,” this kind of geometry confuses.) More Americans polled in 2015 than in 2001 say they accept, for example, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, and, most dramatically, gay marriage. There is notable exception to this permissive trend: views on extramarital sex. The percentage of Gallup respondents who said that was “morally acceptable” was 7 in 2001 and 8 in 2015.

Gallup’s non-trend for adultery puzzled some, including the Gallup folks. (Columnist Russ Douthat, for example, wrote a column parsing philosophical issues of human rights to suggest, I think, that the constancy is still part of the national decline of virtue.) I write this post to say: the seeming exception of adultery to increasing permissiveness is not new; its exceptionalism has gotten starker over decades; and there is an explanation.

I covered the topic in a post over two years ago and beg the reader’s indulgence for some repetition.

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One clear social change of the last half-century is Americans’ increasing support of sexual freedom. It is all around us: magazines at the check-out counter blaring advice about orgasms, easy-access pornography on the web and soft-core pornography on cable, hooking-up culture on tv programs, and nonchalance about couples “living together” before (or after) marriage (see this earlier post).

Sexual restraints loosened over much of the twentieth century, but the great release, so to speak, occurred in the late 1960s. As I noted in a post three years ago, the hinge of change seemed to between the time that Diana Ross and the Supremes’ hit song “Love Child” made the charts in 1968 – “My father left, he never even married mom / I shared the guilt my mama knew / So afraid that others knew I had no name” – and 1975, when First Lady Betty Ford described the possibilities of her daughter having a premarital affair as “perfectly normal.”

The rise in the proportion of Americans who had such “normal” premarital affairs slowed down in the 1980s. Similarly, the public’s growing acceptance of premarital sex slowed down. [1] Still, Americans’ approval of sexual liberation across a variety of fronts continued even after the late ‘60s hinge. For many observers, it just shows how hedonistic and morally unstrung our society has become. But there is an interesting pattern to changing public views on sex that suggests a more complex story.

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Sex and the American Car

In our new age of being “wired” wirelessly 24/7, there is a lot of debate – especially over the wireless Internet – about what new technologies are “doing” to us: making us lonely, or dumb, or frenetic, or surveilled, or empowered, or disempowered, and so on.

LC-USZ62-109131

Public worry about the consequences of technological change are not new. One of the spicier controversies arose in the 1920s about the newly spreading technology of the automobile: Was it encouraging promiscuous sex among American youth?

What historians know about this story may have lessons for today’s debates about technology.

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